Open Source Cargo Cult

Have you ever wondered if the people who claim to want to use “open source” don’t really understand what it is?

I get this feeling a lot, mostly from the media, government politicians and organisational administrators. Very few people understand Free and Open Source Software enough to be able to understand the difference between that and proprietary software. So is it any wonder so few people are able to grasp the importance of it in their organisation?

At times I feel it’s as if they’ve heard about some mystic buzz word that can solve technical problems they never knew existed and all they have to do is observe some religious behaviours and the wonderful results of doing science properly (i.e. publishing results and peer review) will magically be yours without any requirement to understand what it is your actually doing.

I’m also cynically wondering if this same process of belief is how a lot of well to do people understand economics. Perform XYZ and get godly justified rewards! Magic until it all falls to bits as a giant pyramid scheme.

Perhaps I’m just frustrated at the lack of understanding, the promiscuity of misinformation and bad explanations that seem to grind the clear message down into an indecipherable mess.

Your thoughts?

16 thoughts on “Open Source Cargo Cult

  1. Cargo cult is my favorite metaphor ever. Thank you Feynman for coining “Cargo cult science”!

    Lack of understanding is everywhere, and it’s the same here and with any issue; this is one very good reason for grassroots to take vocal part of politics: because they normally do stuff for the right reasons, and know how it’s done.

  2. Well, on the one hand I figure as open source grows in pervasiveness, we have to expect the ratio of clued to unclued is going to drop.

    That said, I do hope at least the ideals of “collaborate and cooperate” catch on in general. Although, looking at how those ideals are so often spurned by proponents of other distros, I don’t have much optimism. All the in-fighting sets a poor example for newbies to our communit(y|ies).

  3. Lack of understanding is right, exactly what is the complaint here? How about an example?

  4. Yep. Been there. Seen it from another angle: maligned as “shareware”. That was annoying because it was so dismissive, as is FOSS originated software had no credibility.

    I’ve made the mistake of casting FOSS about as a silver bullet. Lack of understanding was the problem. At the end of the day, the benefits seem to be in the ideology. I have seen some quality proprietary software, so I can’t bash that too easily. However, at the end of the day, proprietary has always meant one thing: technology lock-in. That is one of the ideologies that makes FOSS attractive to me now. With more open standards, if I want to move from one product to another, I stand a better chance of being able to migrate my material.

    I hope that hasn’t been too rambly. So go my thoughts.

  5. That we recognise the need for such ideals is an important step. Sure there are plenty of people in the spiteful adolescence stage, but most grow out of it.

  6. You are also living a software category out cracked proprietary software that is something that is really spread in my opinion and that is the software category i used before i moved to ubuntu. To me that is just like free software. and i mainly moved to ubuntu because i like the way it looked and the way i could get involved with software and the os although i don`t really like where it is going now with less customization available no gdm themes no notifications customization the mesanging applet linked to the other programs…. this lack is tempting me to go for a cracked windows 7.
    As for understanding the open source software i don`t really know what is to understand i think its more a case of “i don`t care” people want something that works great for everything that they can ever think of doing on theyr machine
    I love opensource software because it gives everyone the possibility to use or fork or develop something better or worse from a orginal work that is great but most people don`t care about this most people are media consumers and they don`t really care

  7. The media. I blame the media.

    Journalist are, by necessity, dilettante. Yet, people look to them as authoritative source of information on any given topic. Go figure.

    Three times out of four, when an article in mainstream media discuss FOSS, they get the details wrong. More often than not, they totally eclipse the Freedom aspect of what we are doing. And that is true even in the IT specialized press. No wonder people outside the FOSS circle do not grok what we are doing.

  8. You kidding? I get this feeling from the open source community itself, and it’s almost pitiful.

    Everyone bends the definition of open source, and “open” itself, to their own PR spin — Google, Adobe, Apple, Microsoft, even the FSF.

    In fact, the only statements you can really trust *are* the lawyers’ legal statements — because then, they must agree on a standard definition of the words they’re actually using, rather than nebulous press releases where they say and imply whatever the heck they want.

  9. I’m too busy to run my own mail server anymore, so I use a hosting service for that. Though it was (and still is) buggy, I chose Zimbra, a FOSS set of applications for Outlook-like email, contacts, calendars, etc. I reviewed the hosting providers, picked one, and migrated my domains over.

    After a year or so, the hosting provider just wasn’t cutting it. They were overcharging, and were too busy with other projects to support me.

    So, I just went and picked another provider. They migrated the data over, and my users had very little to learn to use the new system.

    I suppose this would also be possible with multiple vendors hosting proprietary software (such as Exchange), but I’m sure that such versatility would be out of our price range.

    The beautiful part is that, if I get sick of all these hosting providers, I can just run the software myself with no major investment.

  10. I know that I have a difficult time explaining FOSS in layman’s terms. I’m trying to set up a local community center that uses open source software and principles to work on community-centric projects. When I speak with people about the benefits of FOSS I seem to lose them somewhere after ‘freely use, modify and distribute.’ A huge problem is that we don’t yet have great ways of explaining it in general terms, or at least I don’t.

  11. Jeffrey Anthony: Maybe because most people don`t want to use (as host your own mail service) modify and distribute. or they just don`t know how to. and those are the main advantages of OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE.
    Think what are most people doing on a computer. They watch videos on youtube ,listen to music , sometimes they write something relay simple in word , IM on messenger , read mails , and surf the web. What else? wheal that isn`t realy using the computer to it`s full potential. in my opinion opensource has the potential to make the computers be used, by those that care , to their full potential and the road to doing this isn`t the road ubuntu went on … a operating system aimed at the masses of computer users and using your dominant linux distro position too push developers your way
    I`m somehow afraid when things want to reach the masses because they spoil everything to make them-selfs “understandable”. Scientists shouldn’t be understood by morons that’s just how life works and genius shouldn’t try and explain everything to everybody they should just mind they business and those that understand are lucky you don’t wheal pity
    I’m sorry i might went off topic 🙁
    What i want to say is that open source software is more than software it is more like society it’s not something that you just use to write a mail u can make a new gmail service without creating everything yourself you can ask for something that you need and you might get served or you can give advice and support to someone that needs it
    BTW i’m a little drunk. Hope it makes sense what i wanted to say.

  12. The problem here is that CEOs and stay at home Moms have enough on their hands- they don’t want to contemplate philosophical principles directly on their lives. That’s what religious is for, and it’s far more nebulous and easy to justify.

    When you apply the principles FOSS was built on to your computing lifestyle, there are things that just have to change, whether it’s as small as dual-booting, or as large as quitting applications that won’t work in Wine since you don’t wanna’ support Microsoft with a VirtualBox.

    It’s something that requires people to go out of their way, and even if it saves them time, freedom, and liberates them a bit, a lot of people don’t really realize this is the case. Because Microsoft, as horrible as their product is, is kind of fighting a losing battle at the moment. So they’re not really screwing customers as much as they used to, and the screwage that occurs today is not very effective due to alternatives.

    Open source is winning. Linux may not be winning on the desktop, but open source software is where it’s at, and people know it. I determine success as “we’re there,” not, “who’s using us?”

    I wouldn’t call Windows successful, since it still has some HUGE problems in and of itself. Microsoft is successful FINANCIALLY. The merits of their OS standing on its own? It’s probably the worst you can get today. Win32 compatibility/porting is the main feature people are looking for today.

  13. Well said, I am really concerned about some so-called “open source supporter” no longer go after software quality and technology advancement which the whole open source idea were promoting, but ONLY because it is “anti-microsoft”, “cool” or something like that.
    Yes, open source is a good thing because it allow developers and technology to advance, but SOME community(or may be some OS /wink) goes TOO far for discouraging user to even use close source software. Isn’t this against their own philosophy in the end? How’s a freedom free when you are forced to have it?
    Open-source community really need to stop doing all these holy crusade and go back to advance our technology.

  14. passerby: It’s only a problem for me if you use closed source when your use hurts me. This can be social or economic. We’re not silos and disconnected, our actions effect others. Tell me why I shouldn’t be upset by people who use open source when it suites them, but hurt free software at their first opportunity.

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